We invest in housing, human services and schools. We should invest in our democracy, too.
The Fair Elections Act of 2017 would establish a voluntary, limited public matching-funds program for qualified candidates running for elected office in the District. As proposed, the program would match $5 for every $1 contributed to qualified candidates who agreed to accept only small-dollar donations and forgo donations from traditional political action committees. A resident who could afford only a $50 contribution with a $250 match would make an actual donation of $300, providing candidates who participate in the program with sufficient financial support for their campaigns.
Howard County recently created a similar program, set to begin with the 2022 election cycle. Montgomery County’s public financing program, which is up and running for next year’s election, has attracted broad support.
A matching-funds program would strengthen our democracy by empowering D.C. residents who now are underrepresented.
Currently, the people who largely fund D.C. elections do not reflect the beautiful diversity of our city. Donors tend to be whiter, wealthier, older and more male than the District’s population. A study by Demos of the 2014 election found that, while white people make up 37 percent of the District’s population, 62 percent of mayoral donors and 67 percent of D.C. Council donors are white.
Candidates who do not have a wealthy network of friends are at a disadvantage when facing candidates with a broad and well-financed network. The disparity is even more pronounced when considering citywide races, in which donor limits increase. We can address this with the Fair Elections Act so that the people who fund our elections reflect the people who live and vote in the District.
A well-crafted public financing system also would help democratize elections by breaking down the barriers to running for office, amplifying the voices of voters and providing residents an opportunity to participate in the electoral process on par with corporate interests.
Momentum has been building for a public finance system in the District, and I have been a proud supporter of it because the District is stronger when residents are empowered and able to participate fully in our government. The Fair Elections Act would restore power to the electorate and help engage more people in the political process. This would be good for candidates, incumbents and challengers, our government and, most important, residents.
In 2013, the council enacted significant campaign finance reform legislation that I sponsored that resulted in enhanced accountability and transparency in the financing of D.C. elections. That legislation closed loopholes and enhanced oversight of lobbyist bundling.
A robust democratic process is something I have been committed to for a long time. It is why I first introduced public financing legislation in 2013, held the first roundtable on the bill and am a proud co-introducer of this year’s strengthened proposal.
Because we are elected officials and D.C. voters, it is critical that D.C. Council members support fair elections and make sure we tackle the issues confronting our democracy with the same urgency and rigor as with similar issues in our communities.
The writer, a Democrat, represents Ward 5 on the D.C. Council, where he serves as chairman pro tempore.